CHARLESTOWN – Critics claim Town Administrator William DiLibero failed to tell the Town Council something he has known since January 2011 – that wind turbines, and very possibly sports lighting as well, are prohibited at Ninigret Park. But DiLibero maintains the turbine issue was addressed at a March 2011 meeting that included Town Council President Thomas Gentz and council member Gregory Avedisian.
The matter came to a head earlier this month after Elyse LaForest, of the National Park Service’s Northeast Region office in Boston, sent a letter to Gentz about the town’s plans to install 70-foot-tall towers for lights at the park, a former naval auxiliary airfield. Parks and Recreation Director Jay Primiano submitted a grant to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management last year for funds to install the lights.
LaForest explained in a March 8 letter that the U.S. Department of the Interior, through the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, deeded Ninigret Park to the town in 1981. The deed stipulated that the 227-acre park would be used and maintained exclusively for public recreation.
“While a lighted football stadium is certainly a recreational use, a project of this scope was not contemplated when the property was deeded,” LaForest wrote. “In order to amend the program of utilization and move forward with the project, the town will have to accurately describe the project, including how the facility will be used and how it fits with other amenities at the park and resources within and surrounding the park. We are very concerned about the close proximity of the park to the adjacent Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.”
At the council’s last meeting on March 12, Councilor Daniel Slattery said he had recently received a 50-page document from Charles Vandemoer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Department of the Interior, which included LaForest’s letter. Slattery criticized DiLibero for failing to fully inform the council of these restrictions and said that plans for lighting are effectively “dead” now that Fish and Wildlife has clarified its requirements.
The document also included correspondence between LaForest and DiLibero from December 2010 to January 2011. In a letter dated Dec. 6, 2010, DiLibero wrote to LaForest, expressing the town’s interest in installing three wind turbines along the southern border of Ninigret Park. The turbines were seen as a way to generate energy and offset utility costs for the town and the Chariho school campus.
“As we implement our master plan for the park, we project attendance levels of upwards of 10 thousand people on fully active weekends,” DiLibero said. “Having the wind generators present at the largest park in Washington County will provide awareness to the public of the benefits of alternative technology. This is a goal that the town, the state of Rhode Island and the federal energy office fully support.”
LaForest responded on Jan. 18, 2011, reminding DiLibero that when the two had spoken on the phone on Nov. 17, 2010, she informed him that “the terms of the transfer require that the property be used for a public park or public recreation purposes in perpetuity.”
“This project is not a recreational use for the property, and therefore is prohibited,” she wrote.
‘A fool’s path’
Resident Ronald Alegrado, a member of Ill Wind, a local coalition opposed to turbines in Charlestown, said that while the letters between DiLibero and LaForest are “not new news,” it is news to members of the council and community.
“Certain people did not share that information, and sent [those involved with wind turbines] down a fool’s path,” Alegrado said. “In my opinion, someone was really negligent in not informing the townspeople and the council of an existing agreement. It’s very apparent that there is a serious lack of communication between the town administrator and the council.”
Alegrado said that the town would have been saved a great deal of time and money had DiLibero been candid about the letters.
Slattery said he is also disappointed in DiLibero for failing to inform the council sooner that the town had been prohibited by the National Parks Service to erect turbines at the park.
“If we had been informed, we would have sought the town solicitor’s advice, and quite possibly chosen not to pursue the [meteorological] tower, given the formal objections that had been raised by the U.S. National Parks Service,” he said. The 158-foot tower was moved from the campus of Chariho High School to the park in early 2011 to measure wind speeds at the park.
Like Alegrado, Slattery said he suspects that DiLibero has acted unilaterally, without adequate consultation with the council.
“That’s not his job description,” Slattery said. The town administrator is “supposed to be responsible and accountable to the Town Council.”
Gentz said that he was “shocked” when he found out about the correspondence between DiLibero and LaForest, and that the council had not been made aware of it. He said he now doubts that wind turbines or athletic lights will be installed at the park.
“There’s very few places in town for a municipal turbine,” Gentz said. “The lighting is off the table. It’s dead, and the turbines are dead.”
DiLibero said he shares Gentz’s opinion on the lights.
“It’s never going to happen, unless someone puts a new application in,” he said.
He added that the council voted 4-to-1 to submit the grant to DEM to install the lights, but denied claims recently made in an email by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance that he submitted the grant.
“I didn’t write that grant,” DiLibero said. “Jay Primiano wrote the grant. … It’s hard to have an employee who wants to do things, and tell him, ‘No, I don’t want you to do that.’ … You don’t want to discourage them from being innovative and creative and interested in doing their work.”
In order for athletic lights ever to be a possibility at Ninigret Park, DiLibero said a new environmental notification form would have to be completed and submitted to DEM. When the DEM denied the grant, it said that a grant might be reconsidered if the proposal were revised.
“I said to Jay, ‘Tell them thank you, but we’re not going to revise the grant proposal, because it’s clear there are people who don’t want to have lights in the park,” DiLibero said. “There’s this process involved, and we don’t have the time and money to go through the environmental notification process.”
DiLibero added that the Interior Department letters were addressed at a meeting he attended on March 8, 2011, with Fish and Wildlife’s Vandemoer, Gentz, Avedisian and Jeff Broadhead, executive director of the Washington County Regional Planning Council. Vandemoer said that he remembers a discussion about the wind turbines at this meeting but that he did not recall the letters being part of the conversation.
Support for DiLibero
Supporters of DiLibero have defended how he has handled the situation. Resident Irwin Birnbaum was angered by the email sent out by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance and claimed the organization is doing a “hatchet job” on the administrator.
“Isn’t this the same town administrator that we so lavishly praised for his work during the storms and power outages last October?” he asked in a response email. “Isn’t he the same town administrator who was chosen to go to the Harvard School of Government’s prestigious program for town administrators last summer? … I only wish that the members of the Town Council did half as good a job governing our town as Mr. DiLibero does administering the town.”
Avedisian said he thinks DiLibero at least had a conversation with Gentz about the lights and turbines before the issue came to a head at a council meeting. Regardless, Avedisian praised DiLibero for his “long list of accomplishments,” and chalked up the controversy to politics.
“We’re coming into an election year, and we decided to make this [controversy], among other things, a political issue,” he said. “This is a far different council than the previous one.”
Primiano said he was surprised at the reactions.
“I’m a little stunned and a little disappointed also that Councilor Gentz has sided with Dan [Slattery] on this issue,” Primiano said. “I know he knows the value that Bill [DiLibero] brings to the town.”
In September, the council adopted a new wind power ordinance for the second time within the span of a year. It reads in its entirety: “No wind energy facility or wind turbine of any sort or nature is permitted in any zoning district located in the town. Such uses are prohibited uses in all zoning districts.”
At that time, Slattery said the meteorological tower at Ninigret Park would complete its one-year measurement of wind speed and direction this spring, and the data would be used to evaluate the feasibility of a large scale or industrial turbine at the park.
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